Sunday, November 1, 2015

South Korea: more than K-pop and kimchi

Kavi Chongkittavorn,

image from

South Korea is no longer shy talking about its role in promoting democracy and human rights in Asia and beyond. This new sense of confidence comes mainly from its full blossoming democratisation since the economic crisis in 1997. Its civil society groups are also very active within Asia and they serve as feisty watchdogs to ensure the transparency and accountability of government policies.

For over half a century, South Korea has struggled to move beyond the confines of the Korean Peninsula quagmire. Only in recent years has this country had the courage to undertake such public diplomacy due to its high-performance economic and political development. At present, Seoul is moving forward to a broadening diplomatic horizon.
With several of its citizens heading key positions in international organisations, South Korea is very proud and tries to live up to the growing expectation of an international community. This is a far cry from the South Korea of yesteryear which was very conservative, inward looking and homogeneous.
These days, one in every 10 new babies born in South Korea comes from a mixed-marriage family. Each year thousands of foreign women, mainly from Southeast Asia, are married to local people. These days, beyond the proliferation of K-pop and other Korean phenomena, South Korea is portraying itself as a multicultural nation. Foreigners, whether residents or refugees, are better treated than before. ...
As a middle power, South Korea has been quite outspoken about democracy and human rights. Its record backing UN resolutions related to rights issues is the barometer. Indeed, it was also the only country in Asia that had been able to utilise Confucian thinking in a modern context. The author recalls an interview in 1999 with President Kim Dae-jung, who proudly declared that Asia had the oldest form of democracy and respect for human rights enshrined in Confucianism. He said that democratic values were not a Western concept - they were as Asian as kimchi; with hundreds of variations, of course.
With its liberal interpretations, this Chinese sage's philosophy and teachings have been given a face-lift, as they could fit snugly into the current societal conditions with emphasis on collective betterment of society — a common feature of Asian society at large. In China, South Korea's approach to Confucianism has been a subject of intense study. President Xi Jinping has personally promoted the teachings of Confucius — although with a different emphasis — as part of core Chinese values since he took power in 2012.
This collective rights-based approach has helped South Korea build firmer democratic values with broader appeals in the region. In more ways than one, it has come of age in terms of democratic institutionalisation and economic development. So, as a result, it wants a new image as a multicultural nation with a vibrant democracy which can contribute to the global public good.

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